'Parnassus' busy early

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The hottest U.S. acquisition title at the upcoming Festival de Cannes might not be sold at the festival at all.

"The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," Terry Gilliam's story of a traveling carnival that also is Heath Ledger's final film, has topped the list of many executives since it emerged during the past few months that the title would have its world premiere on the Croisette.

Although the festival chose it as an Out of Competition title, filmmakers and U.S. sales rep Cinetic Media have opted to try to sell the film before the fest, which begins May 13.

A screening for top Los Angeles-based execs was scheduled for Tuesday night, where Cinetic hoped to seal a deal. (The company is repping domestic only; foreign sales in many territories already have been sold).

Filmmakers are believed to be seeking a studio-level deal with studio-level prices — well into seven figures.

"If the movie delivers, you're going to see people willing to open their wallets," said one exec who planned to attend the screening. "Even with the high price, you can pick up a marketable movie for a lot less than it costs to make it."

The movie is the first effort for Gilliam — known for his unique visual style — in four years, a period in which special effects have made huge leaps. In addition to the Ledger hook, the film features such marketable stars as Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who stepped in to take over Ledger's role.

The Cinetic decision continues a trend in which big titles increasingly are sold outside festivals. In January, CAA chose not to take the Renee Zellweger period comedy "My One and Only" to the Sundance Film Festival even though the pic was ready; instead, it was screened privately for distributors.

But "Parnassus" represents an unusual next step: a film that's already going to a high-profile festival actively seeking a deal away from it.

There's a logic to the move. With the festival sales market bottoming out — there has been one fest sale for at least $4 million in the past year, "The Wrestler" — and with the Cannes contingent thought to be unpredictable, Cinetic doesn't want to take any chances.

If a deal can be reached, it would mean that what was a Cannes screening for the industry becomes a launchpad for a studio's marketing campaign.

"Either way, there's going to be hoopla in Cannes," one indie veteran said. "But it's going to be a very different kind of hoopla if Cinetic gets a deal done this week." (partialdiff)
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